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Stabilization And Digital Dialogues For Myanmar: Stepping Back From The Brink Of Civil War

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Abstract: Five months into the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is on an increasingly fragile trajectory with clear signs of conflict escalation. World attention tapered off after the first few weeks and shifted to other hot spots, including in the Middle East. Regional ASEAN diplomacy and western sanctions pressure have failed to provide a breakthrough while influential neighboring countries are locked in competition and preoccupied with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The weakened multilateral system seems unable to respond decisively to growing mass protests and violent repression by the military. Basic levels of protection for civilians and essential services have been eroded amid a resurging COVID-19 Pandemic.

National cohesion in Myanmar has come under severe pressure. Although the country has weathered low-intensity conflicts over the years and state disintegration is a remote scenario, regional stability hinges on peace and prosperity in Myanmar which is located between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Democratic transition has remained incomplete in Myanmar since 2011. Inclusive civic dialogue can help reduce tensions through leveraging communications technology for digital grass-roots engagement, especially with Myanmar’s youth. This might restore a modicum of calm and provide a conducive environment for peace talks. International friends of Myanmar and ASEAN states are well placed to provide critical support, in line with ASEAN commitments. Civic digital dialogue could also boost human capital for addressing longer-term challenges, including the impact of climate change and the Pandemic.  

Evolving Conflict Dynamics- Violence Expands from the Center to the Periphery

While renowned National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, charges of corruption were formalized in June concerning a charitable foundation, in addition to  alleged breaches of COVID-19 protocol and communications regulations. After some delay, a court hearing was held on 26 May. Meanwhile, the number of detained civilians grew over tenfold from the first weeks of mass protests to 6,000. On 30 June, the government released 2,300 detainees nationwide, including media and NGO workers who had not committed violent acts. The junta prepared indictments against protesters and 64 persons received death sentences as reported in media in early June.

Some 211,000 persons were internally displaced, according to recent UNHCR figures and the death toll neared 900 persons in late June, according to NGO observer groups. Since the beginning of 2021, the civilian casualty rate in Myanmar is among the highest worldwide, second only to conflicts in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Businesses were severely affected, and several factories were closed; several large international firms divested from Myanmar or are pausing investments. After a general strike in February, anti-junta protests continued in northern Kachin State, southern Dawei, Sagaing region and in the commercial capital Yangon.

A Committee representing the disbanded parliament (CRPH) was formed and a “National Unity Government” (NUG) established in April. The shadow government issued a proclamation for the release of all political prisoners, return of the armed forces to the barracks, ending the violence and accountability for those responsible for atrocities after the coup. The NUG also pledged remedial action for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and their rights in Rakhine state of Myanmar where over 100,000 persons had fled to safety in Bangladesh in the 2017 military crackdown against suspected terrorists.

By the end of June, military repression continued unabated. Weapons of war were used against demonstrators and neighborhood vigilante groups loyal to the authorities targeted protesters. Internet services were frequently blocked since April as the military  rolled out a restrictive new cyber security law. The Facebook social media platform which was used by half of the country’s population as ubiquitous news source and messaging service was shut down. independent media outlets were shut down or fined, and over 90 journalists imprisoned. Relatively few defections from the armed forces have occurred, mostly from lower ranking navy and air force members as well as units constituted with former rebels in 2015. Some reports suggest that soldiers melted away to join the Civil Disobedience Movement in an estimated 800 total of cases, but it remains unclear how many of them ended up taking arms for the resistance.

In another more serious development, some of the ethnic minority militias in Myanmar’s border areas with long-running insurgencies against the central government have started to mobilize. There  were reports that  urban dissenters were joining their ranks and new ‘civilian armies’ were constituted as offshoots of the Civil Defense Movement while other protesters just sought temporary shelter among militias. Several of these groups -including the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east- publicly denounced the coup and stated they would defend protesters in the territory they control. Other ethnic militias appeared to be sitting on the fence about fighting in urban areas. Experts believe that the territorial ethnic armies have widely diverging military capabilities and are unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces. However, ethnic militia are a possible factor in pan-ethnic solidarity supporting talks and might become ‘king makers’ in the event of a rift inside the Myanmar military forces.

On 22 June, armed demonstrators of the ‘Mandalay PDF’ group engaged armed forces in a sustained urban firefight at Myanmar’s second largest city. In areas bordering Thailand, Karen state saw intensified armed clashes in May when over 100,000 persons were displaced and some sought temporary safety in Thailand. Confrontations were also reported from Chin state bordering India and from northern Kachin and Shan states. Well-informed observers warned about a trend towards generalized revolt. unless regional or international initiatives can manage to stem the escalation. The country may have come close to becoming ungovernable and some analysts warn of impending state collapse and prolonged civil war as in the case of Syria. 

International Response Patterns- Sanctions and Regional Diplomacy

The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Myanmar three times since the coup and issued                  a presidential statement on 10 March. The Council repeatedly called for restraint and restoring democratic transition in Myanmar but its closed meeting on 18 June 2021 fell short of deciding on an arms embargo. The Council demanded that the constitutional order should be respected but did not condemn the military coup outright, due to the position of China and Russia that defended national sovereignty. China publicly rejected sanctions as “inappropriate intervention” on 3 July during the                 9th World Peace Forum held in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the primary goal was to help Myanmar find a political solution as soon as possible through dialogue and consultation.

The UN Generally Assembly (GA) passed a first non-binding resolution on Myanmar on 18 June, which condemned the coup and called for a stop in the flow of arms to the country and the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian officials. The UN Secretary-General reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 July following mass releases of detainees in Myanmar. He also expressed deep concern over continued intimidation and violence as well as arbitrary arrests. In early July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of political crisis in Myanmar evolving into a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe” with potential for massive insecurity and fallout in the region. The SG’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, visited neighboring states of Myanmar but was not permitted to enter the country.

Outside the UN, international responses featured moral appeals, public condemnation and the use of targeted sanctions. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Statement of 5 May roundly condemned the coup and called for immediate cessation of violence; the G7 pledged support to ASEAN efforts in conflict resolution. In mid-May, US, UK and Canada imposed a new round of coordinated sanctions which were expanded from a dozen military figures to state enterprises known as significant income earners (gems and timber industries). In early July, the US led additional sanctions measures against 22 members of the regime and close relatives, also targeting three Chinese companies for providing support to the Myanmar regime through business dealings with the sanctioned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.

EU sanctions were expanded to include public timber companies from Myanmar, aligning with earlier UK measures. The US and UK placed sanctions on the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body while the EU placed sanctions on the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, due to its close connection with the Armed Forces. Japan warned in mid-May that assistance to Myanmar could be frozen beyond a halt of new aid programs decided in February, seeking to use its considerable leverage as a top donor for Myanmar. Canada said it imposed additional sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Myanmar armed forces, indicating it was prepared to take further steps. New Zealand imposed a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopped all aid that could benefit them; effectively suspending all military and high-level political contacts with the country.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remained the                        de-facto leader of the country. Apart from minor changes in the SAC, the junta government stayed in place. Experts assess that the army leader has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Unlike during previous military rule in Myanmar in the 1980s, a semi-civilian composition of the new cabinet in the Supreme Administrative Council (SAC) shows that the military is prepared to ride out international pressure and pursue national development. However, analysts based in the region see          a risk of Myanmar backsliding several decades and reversing gains from the democratic transition.

ASEAN Regional Leverage vs. Geopolitical Interests

Early regional reactions to the coup in  Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Following the ASEAN consensus principle, current ASEAN Chair Brunei appealed for respect of ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. The regional block tried to engage the junta during the 24 April ASEAN Leaders Meeting which the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended. Yet he subsequently backtracked stating that stability was an essential precondition for ASEAN peace talks and implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus from the summit. ASEAN  followed up with a high-level mission to Yangon in early June to meet the junta leader again and seek his views on a list of nominees for an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar agreed among ASEAN member states.   

The junta’s  foreign minister participated  in a special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting in Chongqing in early June, amid speculations that China was warming up to the military leadership in Myanmar. Chinese officials had issued veiled criticism in the early phase of the coup while parallel Chinese linkages were forged with the civilian NUG. A tuning point occurred in mid-March when protesters injured Chinese workers at a Yangon factory complex which was damaged and looted. In a scenario of widespread instability and key infrastructure under threat, China might resort to pressure  NUG and the junta into a compromise, according to regional experts; some analysts point to a recent Chinese troop concentration at the important border town of Jiegao.

China’s southern Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin state became one of the recent flashpoints in violence. The area is important for China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas pipeline projects to Myanmar coastal areas, as well as the  Muse-Mandalay highway.  China has also pursued a mega-hydro project north of Myitkyina which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns and developed an industrial park for the town. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped estate and land in the Yangon area, despite restrictive rules.

China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021 as senior-most foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China as a traditional ally has taken a relatively low-key approach with Myanmar. Russia appeared more eager to capitalize on arms cooperation with senior visits demonstrating that Moscow is not beholden to western sanctions policies.

Like the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional partners have most likely  adopted a “wait and see” approach before gradually re-engaging with the junta-led government. However, Thailand voiced concerns of spillover from the violence in Myanmar, after refugees had crossed the long border; Thailand considers itself as a ‘front line state’ and has recalled its “quiet and discreet diplomacy” efforts underway.

India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor already hosts many refugees from the Christian Chin minority.  15,000 refugees have arrived in northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since the coup, according to UNHCR figures. These arrivals remain displaced and are hosted by local communities. Larger waves of refugees from Myanmar would affect the delicate local political and security environment. Myanmar’s military has at times coordinated with Indian security forces to control extremists and “geopolitical intricacy” overrides India’s stand on the current crisis.

Similarly, China does not want to see spillover from Myanmar tensions upset its southern industrialization schemes. It was India that delivered the first 1.5mln doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar in mid-January when China’s global vaccine diplomacy took shape. Yet both powerful neighbors of Myanmar are unlikely to come to an understanding how to prevent a worst-case scenario, given their geopolitical antagonisms in the wake of recent US and Quad countries cooperation.

Configuring Innovative Dialogue for 21st Century- Digital Engagement with Myanmar Conflict Parties

In view of the high stakes from ongoing violence and the risk of serious escalation, the time may have come for an alternative approach in Myanmar peace support. Assisted by new technology, digital dialogue at the grass-roots level could provide an opportunity for reflection and connect segments of the population and conflict parties. Such innovative dialogue can also tap into Myanmar’s human capital, especially youth who tend to be tech-savvy and eager to express their views. ASEAN’s supportive and caring posture expressed in its 24 April Leader’s Meeting Communique lays out  ASAEAN regional solidarity in a people-centered approach rather than prescriptive intervention. ASEAN is also well placed for assisting with required technology from its industrialized members and influential countries in Asia.

Newly boosted by the global switch to digital in the COVID-19 Pandemic, state-of -the-art communication technology and tools exist to connect hundreds of participants in online dialogue sessions. UN peace missions in Yemen, Syria and Libya have utilized such digital outreach to enrich ongoing negotiations and tapped into AI solutions for evaluating feedback. The work of senior negotiators might become more hybrid with online inputs and analysis, although scholars note                                a “missing sense of peace” in virtual interactions. On the other hand, benefits exist from greater inclusion, shorter iterative meetings, and equality in interaction. Significant peace constituencies including women, youth and minorities can be included online from the very start than in most traditional mediations.  

Myanmar has fertile ground for digital grass-roots dialogue. Younger citizens, including in conflict areas have shown great skill in networked cooperation, providing practical livelihoods advice and psychosocial support for years. In view of restrictions from the junta, protesters have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) solutions to ensure connectivity. Some younger officials and members of the security apparatus may also participate in a “sovereignty enhancing” dialogue aimed at better governance and reforms. The technological challenges including interference from authorities are not insurmountable.

Accompaniment could be provided via inter-regional cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which remains under-utilized, despite strong shared business interests. The multi-sector dialogue  template (“Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” -E-READI) has ample room for configuring the required scaling effects in technical assistance in sectoral policy dialogues concerning Myanmar’s specific situation. Notably, Facebook and Instagram banned Myanmar’s military and military-controlled state media in late February, citing “exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar”.    

Pivot to a New Generation Compact in Myanmar- Tackling Global Challenges

Innovative digital dialogue as an early confidence building process can provide a platform for addressing center-periphery relations in Myanmar which lie at the core of many minority grievances. Myanmar could start developing its “new generational compact” including on regional autonomy and decentralization. The country never managed to forge a “Second Panglong Agreement” after independence and the death of General Aung San in 1948.    

Social cohesion and enabling social capital for addressing global challenges of climate change and Pandemic resilience are urgent for Myanmar. The devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 showed the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in low-lying coastal areas. Myanmar’s Pandemic response also requires joint mobilization, due to  rising infection levels nearing peaks of last October. Medical staff were instrumental in launching the Civil Disobedience Movement; work stoppages and insecurity have affected the health sector where recent new COVID-19 restrictions are hampering humanitarian access and response. The impact has been dramatic in interrupting remote outreach on public health prevention and counseling of victims of gender-based violence.

In the absence of consensus among superpowers to find a joint formula for lending ASEAN political efforts additional clout, or tactical convergence between the US and China for stabilizing Myanmar jointly as a middle ground, innovative civic dialogue should be seriously considered. More punitive approaches may end up driving the beleaguered country deeper into the arms of China and exacerbate violent conflict. Grass-roots engagement with critical peace constituencies in Myanmar could prevent transforming the current crisis into a proxy fight between global players and second tier regional powers, including India which has asserted itself in border tensions with China and as part of the US-led Quad group of states to hedge against China’s growing influence in ASEAN and APEC Regions.  

Matthias E Leitner, Senior Adviser/ International Coordinator with ICSVE Center Washington, DC (USA), Berlin-based Matthias Ernst LEITNER has over 20 years’ experience in international peace and security, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in the Middle East. His professional focus is on governance/ accountability, national dialogues and coalition building as well as on project development for preventing violent extremism and radicalization. Mr. Leitner has held senior management positions with UN Special Envoy Offices. His ongoing interest is in UN reforms, peacebuilding and innovative approaches for resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages and history.

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AUKUS: A Sequela of World War II and US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Deemed as a historic security pact, AUKUS was unveiled by the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia – a patent revelation of their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison’s public refusal “to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability”, the plan of building eight nuclear-powered submarines under the agreement remarkably augurs the country’s official accession to the existing “nuclear submarine club” whose members include the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and India. The AUKUS pact, for all intents and purposes, delivers as huge a leap in Australia’s defense capabilities as its international military strength.

Many have interpreted the birth of AUKUS as an effort to counter China’s aggressively rising military presence in the Pacific even though China was never explicitly mentioned in the remarks of the creation of the new alliance by its leaders. However, judged by China’s vehement condemnation of the security pact as “extremely irresponsible” so that it has risked “severely damaging regional peace” and “intensifying the arms race”, China obviously perceived it as a barefaced provocation and threat.

It has been witnessed that the tensions between Australia and China over the past few years have been soaring, ranging from Scott Morrison’s insistence on a full-bodied investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to Beijing’s indefinite suspension of all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue Deal. Be that as it may, military confrontations between the two countries still seemed implausible until the formation of AUKUS. To make matters worse, Australia’s bold move also gave a rise out of France by scrapping their previous $40 billion submarine deal, which led the Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian to scathingly denounce Australia’s action as a “stab in the back”. But why on earth did Australia take such a sudden hawkish turn in terms of military, even at the expense of its relationship with France?

The shifting geopolitics of the Pacific region plays a major role. Australia has been sheltered by the ANZUS Treaty (The Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty) since 1951, but the stable environment it has thrived in ascribes not only to the security agreement, but also to its own geopolitical advantage. During the Cold War, the North Atlantic was the focus of the naval operations of the US and the Soviet Union. The South Pacific, where Australia is located, was basically out of USSR’s reach, not to mention a rising US-backed Japan if Soviets ever planned on marching south. Geopolitics of Australia today, nonetheless, has drastically changed as the country’s greatest threat is no longer the Soviet Union. Instead, a provocative China has emerged as a new challenger in the South Pacific with its ramped-up presence in the South China Sea, rendering the area a security hotspot where Australia is ineluctably involved.

However, the geopolitical change in the Pacific is nothing new to Australia since it already experienced it decades ago. As a member of the British Empire, Australia fought alongside its Mother Country – the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it was highly dependent on the UK for its defense against the backdrop of America’s inactive involvement prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite Winston Churchill’s vow to protect Singapore from Japan, the unexpected surrender of the British troops instead led to the fall of the Britain’s former colony to the Japanese army. Britain’s failure to defend Singapore was seen as a betrayal by the then-Prime Minister of Australia John Curtin, and his fury was further fueled when the UK turned a blind eye to Australia’s pleas for help in the wake of Japanese air raids on Darwin and northern Australia. The US did come to Australia’s aid, but the very reason why Americans helped was that they needed a base in the Pacific to look out for their own interests, and Australia happened to serve as a good spot.

All of those have made Australia acknowledge the fact that it only had “small-power status” and neither the US or the UK had been a reliable ally when it comes to protecting Australia in its hour of need. In that respect, it makes perfect sense for Australia to prioritize the enhancement of its own military capabilities over other matters, especially in the wake of the blatant military threat made by the chief editor of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper that Chinese missile strikes on Australia will be inevitable if the latter ever plans to intervene in Taiwan Strait issues.

Another heavily discussed question is – why did Australia rush to forge a new security pact even it is already a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance? The faltering American global leadership might be the major impetus. America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan not only created a power vacuum in the latter, but also potential instability in the Indo-Pacific. No matter how hard the Biden Administration has tried to defend its humiliating Afghan retreat, allies of the US are alarmed and suspicions of a falling America are raised. In the eyes of Australia, America’s abandonment of Afghanistan is nothing short of Britain’s insouciance towards Australia 70 years ago. As the victim of abandonment trauma during World War II, Australia’s contributions to AUKUS are simply the outgrowth of the country’s efforts to prevent history from repeating itself.

Australia is by no means the only country seeking a stronger military force and a tougher stance against CCP during the ongoing reshuffling of the global deck. Canada and Japan, both economically powerful but politically mediocre, are likely to make the same move as Australia has made to gradually break free from their military dependence on the US. Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has relentlessly bashed China’s Communist Regime and has highlighted his tough-on-China policy in the Canada federal election. In Japan, a great majority of the current prime minister candidates have also overtly manifested their hawkish stance on China. Regardless of where those elections may lead, it is not hard to fathom that Australia’s ballooning military spending will be replicated by more countries. AUKUS, as a sequela of the Second World War and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, is likely to usher in an era of a new round of arms race.

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Visit of Vietnamese President to Cuba

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President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) meets with Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. (Photo: VNA)

Following the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam, the government has decided to procure 10 million doses of Abdala vaccines from Cuba. Abdala vaccine is one of the two vaccines produced locally in Cuba. The situation in Vietnam is compelling because Vietnam has seen more than 16,637 deaths because of the Delta warrant outbreak in the country since April of this year. The casualty rate is still low in terms of global average.  The severity of the crisis has been so profound that before the visit of Vietnam’s president to Havana an order of 10 million vaccine doses of Cuba’s vaccine has already been placed. Abdala vaccine is the eighth vaccine approved for inoculating Vietnamese adult population.

During the visit of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (18-20 September) and his meeting with President of Cuba Miguel Diaz Canel issues of common interest were discussed at length. The two countries have been ideal logically aligned and there has been comprehensive cooperation between the two communist parties. In terms of bilateral corporation the two countries have been working with regard to trading in consumer goods, manufacturing, renewable energy and aquatic products. Cuba has appreciated Vietnam’s Doi Moi reforms and has expressed interest in drawing lessons from the initiative.

In fact the two countries have been adverse to the US capitalist approach in the past, and have been collaborating to sending off their party cadres to each other’s countries for training and also collaboration between the party schools. The relationship between Cuba and US is dotted with tensions and sanctions. The two countries are keen to collaborate with the US. There is increasing trade ties between Vietnam and US following the Permanent Normalization of Trade Relations (PNTR) between the two countries.

The leaders of the two countries are on the same page for betterment of their population and providing better living standards to the people. During the time of Obama constructive engagement with Cuba was foreseen. However, during the period of Trump administration, the congenial ties between Cuba and US went on a cold freeze. Cuba has appreciative of Vietnam’s support since the Cold War period and there has been exchange of knowledge and information with regard to socialist welfare model and economic liberalization  measures that Vietnam has undertaken in the past few decades.

In terms of comprehensive partnership the two countries have focused primarily in areas such as agriculture, rice, coffee, aquatic culture, fisheries sector, maize and agrarian sectors. During the meeting between the two leaders it was agreed that the two countries will work together on developing the theoretical framework of Communist movement and better coordination between the foreign ministries of the two countries. In terms of defence and security aspects also there has been collaboration between the two sides and it is expressed that the collaboration should be further expanded.

It has been also seen that collaboration with regard to production of Abdala COVID-19 vaccine in Vietnam would work in enhancing ties between the two countries in health and medicine sector. Given scourge of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam it is expected that the medical and health clearances for the vaccine will be expedited quickly.

This Cuba visit happened before Vietnam president and the delegation attending the general debate in UN General Assembly in the last week of September. It is expected that the Vietnam president will also attend bilateral activities in the United States. As the Cuban visit precedes the UN meeting, it clearly exposes the strong solidarity and understanding that the two countries have.

Vietnam is also going to make a strong pitch in favour of its role as the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and also put up its candidature for the UN human Rights Council for the period 2023-2025. It is also expected that Vietnam President will hold discussion with other heads of states and important countries related to pandemic prevention and economic recovery in the post pandemic phase.

India has also expressed strong desire with regard to intellectual property rights waiver for the vaccine development and also support to the third world countries in the production of vaccines. Vietnam has been looking for international producers of vaccines to expedite quick delivery of vaccine doses, critical medical equipment and medical supplies to the country. Following the permanent normalisation of relations between US and Vietnam, and the existence of comprehensive partnership between the two countries it is expected that better trade relations between the US and Vietnam would help Vietnam to recover from the pandemic enforced economic stress. The US has so far provided more than 6 million doses of vaccine to Vietnam through the global vaccine mechanism which is known as COVAX. Vietnam is also looking for procuring 20 million doses of Pfizer vaccine for citizens aged 12 to 18.

Vietnam has also started administrating mixture doses of Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines to its population acknowledging the fact that the best way to protect the citizens from the coronavirus is through extensive vaccination programmes. Despite certain bottlenecks Vietnam has inoculated nearly 30.4 million doses of vaccines to its population. The third wave of the coronavirus is expected to be more devastating and it is compelling for a country like Vietnam to provide vaccines to its population.

With Cuba the interesting aspect is that the country will transfer the production technology to Vietnam by the end of this year. Vietnam has been a very instrumental in urging the United States to drop the hostile policy towards Cuba. In terms of trade embargo that the US has imposed on Cuba, it is anticipated that US is going to tone down the restrictions and promote trade facilitation between the two countries. Cuba is also planning to export and commercialize its two indigenous vaccines after the World Health Organization (WHO) gives approval. In terms of effectiveness Abdala vaccine is stated to be 92.28 per cent effective against COVID-19 when a person is administered three doses of the vaccine.

Given the closer relationship between the two countries which started with the recognition of Vietnam by Cuba in 1960 the ties between the two countries have grown multifold. Cuba had also supported Vietnam during its fight against the US forces in southern Vietnam and in order to show solidarity Cuba has established mission of Permanent representative in July 1962 and it appointed an Ambassador subsequently in March 1969. Also during the war of aggression undertaken by the US against Vietnam, US imposed trade embargo against Cuba and snapped all diplomatic relations with the island country. Cuba raised a nationwide movement with the slogan of ‘All for Vietnam’. Interestingly, Cuba has also named manufactories schools and neighbourhood after the anti-US heroes of Vietnam. Fidel Castro during his various visits to different countries has also urged these countries to support Vietnam against the US invasion. Cuban sailors had supported Vietnamese people during the bombing at Hai Phong port.

The history of relationship between the two countries is replete with examples of cooperation, construction and support for each other’s revolutionary causes. Vietnam and Cuba had signed a new trade agreement in November 2018 and have outlined the new agenda for the 2020–20 25 period. Vietnam has grown to be the second largest trading partner for Cuba in Asia. Vietnam has also supported Cuba in terms of developing rice production techniques and ensuring food security. The two countries celebrated their 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and are entering a new phase of unity, partnership and better economic relations.

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From the 2004 tsunami relief efforts to the 2021 leaders’ summit, the Quad has come a long way

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The Quad plurilateral mechanism in the Indo-Pacific reached the landmark summit level in March, this year. With its second summit being held late this week in Washington DC, the prospects of cooperation appear promising. In this long essay, I try to briefly historicise the journey of the Quad so far, right from its very beginnings to the present, and share my frame of mind on what the grouping entails and what it ought to be.

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US President Joe Biden will host the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia at the White House on Friday (September 24) for their first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit. The previous summit was held in virtual mode six months before, in March.

In February, this year, the third ministerial of the four-nation grouping in two years’ time also took place in the virtual mode. The Quad has been recalibrating itself to deal with the most pressing challenges of the times with several purpose-driven working-level groups set in action this year.

This covers a wide range of areas of cooperation, going beyond the traditional domain of maritime security and defence and includes issues such as the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, quality infrastructure, cyber-security, diversified supply chains, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Even though the Quad leaders’ came up with a joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ shortly after the virtual summit in March, the grouping’s very purpose or raison d’être still remains ambiguous, as there are a lot of issues it involves with and there is a lot on the table to speculate on.

While some perceives the Quad as an anti-China coalition of maritime democracies that would ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, some perceive it differently and see the possibilities for regional cooperation, rather than competition.

The Quad navies jointly participated in the annual Malabar naval exercise thrice – in 2007, 2020, and 2021. It was initially conceived and conducted as an India-US bilateral exercise until 2007, when the four Quad navies participated together for the first time since the drills began in 1992. Among the Quad partners, the United States, India, and Japan have been participating as permanent members of the annual war games since 2015.

Australia has been participating in Exercise Malabar for two consecutive years now – 2020 and 2021 – and has additionally participated in one more edition, in 2007, but it still lacks a permanent status in the exercise. If Australia is inducted as a permanent member soon enough, it completes the securitisation of the Quad, but without a formal treaty alliance.

Despite all the contemporary public excitement surrounding the Quad, it is still not fully institutionalised in terms of structural factors such as having a permanent secretariat or an active web presence, a gap that has to be filled in order to complete the process of formal institutionalisation.

There is little doubt that China’s enhanced power projection in the past two decades in the region and the geopolitical concerns it raise has been a key factor in bringing together the nations of grouping in the late 2000s. However, the Quad’s story had subtly begun even much before in an entirely different context.

A natural disaster brings the would-be Quad partners together

The four Quad countries have a history of mutual cooperation that goes 17 years back to December 2004, when a massive tsunami struck along the rim of the Indian Ocean, depriving tens of thousands of people of their lives, livelihoods, and property. It was presumably the deadliest natural disaster of the 21st century, resulting in the death of a whopping 230,000 people.

India, Japan and Australia joined hands with the United States to coordinate the relief efforts, two days after the disaster occurred. They formed a ‘Tsunami Core Group’ as first responders to the looming humanitarian crisis and their collective effort continued till mid-January 2005 before handing over the mission to the United Nations.

A thematic conundrum

The very first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (shortened as the QSD, or the Quad) of senior officials from the four Indo-Pacific democracies took place in May 2007 on the side-lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, only to get disbanded the very next year with Australia’s withdrawal and also due to differences on what the grouping’s aims and objectives ought to be in the years ahead.

However, after nearly a decade, the Quad took a new avatar in November 2017 with the launch of an official-level working group for ‘consultations on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region’, and since then until the March 2021 summit, the Quad meetings of senior officials were held seven times and the foreign ministers met thrice, one each in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively.

Having a large number of issues at hand would amount to losing focus on a key central theme, which ideally ought to be maritime security and the preservation of the right balance of power against any single power’s quest for hegemony in the region. While a shared concern on the rise of China and its new assertion in a way disrupting the regional and global balance of power was an issue that needed to be dealt with right from the very first QSD in 2007.

However, the ‘security’ element of QSD has broadened into newer arenas of cooperation lately, of which the most important issue has been the coordination of the Covid-19 pandemic relief efforts collectively, particularly through the vaccine initiative, announced earlier this year.

Under the initiative, Covid vaccines will be manufactured in India using American biotechnology, with Japanese financial support and Australian logistical support and distribution network, thereby making use of the respective capability-edge of each Quad countries in different areas, as a combined whole. This can also be seen as a response to increasing Chinese influence in regions such as Southeast Asia, where the Quad’s initiative can be introduced as an alternative to the ones offered by China.

The territorial worries of India and Japan

Of all the Quad partners, India is the only country that shares a land border with China in the high Himalayas, which is also disputed and undemarcated with overlapping claims and serious differences in perception of the border. Japan, on the other hand, is located in China’s immediate maritime neighbourhood.

From 2005 to 2007, the security dynamics of Asia and the Pacific witnessed several changes with the rise of China. On the other hand, India was getting closer to the United States, with notably the Indo-US civil nuclear deal negotiations being underway, and later finalised.

Around the same time, in November 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to India kindled an unnecessary controversy by claiming the whole of the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory, or rather as part of southern Tibet. This cast a shadow over the border negotiations that were going on between the two countries since the early 1990s.

Earlier in 2006, during a round of border negotiations, the Chinese side seemed to backtrack on a prior understanding that any final resolution would refrain from disturbing ‘settled populations’. This signalled that Beijing had no intention of respecting the ‘status quo’.

Tensions were also simmering in the East China Sea and not that far from Japanese territorial waters, when a Chinese submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier strike group without warning. This happened in October 2006, causing a major embarrassment for the US Navy. Until that point of time, China remained a quiet naval power.

The incident marked the first instance of China’s naval power projection in modern history, as it remained a land-based power for centuries, even though it had a long coastline along the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Bohai Sea. The Chinese just gave a political message to the world on their new coming as an Asian maritime power.

In fact, Japan started to view China as a potential threat even a couple of years before, when Chinese aircrafts intruded into Japanese airspace near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese referred to as the Diaoyu Islands. A Chinese submarine transited through Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa in 2006 and similar incidents repeated in the following years too.

With tensions heating up, Shinzo Abe, then member of the Japanese National Diet (parliament) published a book detailing his political philosophy and vision for Japan in July 2006, titled “Towards a Beautiful Country”, in which he proposed to strengthen Japan’s collaboration with Australia, the US, and India.

By the time, Indian and Japanese strategic interests in the region began to converge. In the same year, Shinzo Abe was elected as the Prime Minister of Japan, the youngest person to hold the office since the conclusion of the Second World War.

The birth of Quad coincides with the re-emergence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’

The Indian Ocean represented a key strategic vulnerability of China, being a crucial waterway through which Beijing’s energy lifelines transit, before reaching the southern and eastern ports of mainland China via the Strait of Malacca. This opened up the possibility of using naval might to moderate China’s aggressive behaviour, a discussion that attracted minds in the strategic circles of New Delhi and Tokyo, particularly since the mid-2000s.

Before 2006, the Indian Ocean was rarely seen as part of the Asia-Pacific in the context of regional politico-economic integration. The time has now come to imagine a region in which the Indian Ocean integrated with the Asia-Pacific.

Around the same time, in November 2006, then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso delivered a speech at a seminar organised by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in which he spoke of an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent’.

In January 2007, a strategic thinker and then Captain in the Indian Navy named Gurpreet S. Khurana subtly brought back an old idea of a maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the strategic discourse though his policy paper titled, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” – the Indo-Pacific. It was published in Strategic Analysis, the journal of Indian think-tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

However, the idea was originally attributed to a 20th century German geopolitician named Karl Haushofer, who used it in the 1920s in his multiple academic works. Fast forward to the 21st century, in August 2007, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in the Parliament of India, during his visit to the country, known as ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’, in which he endorsed the concept, thereby receiving political and diplomatic mileage for the first time.

The immediate trigger for this ideational revival was apparently the new military assertiveness of China in its neighbourhood. However, it was different from the idea of a four-nation grouping of the Quad, which later endorsed a much-evolved concept of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, respecting customary international law and a rules-based regional order.

Today, the Quad is one of the most important power centres in the Indo-Pacific, along with the ASEAN countries, France, and of course, China.

2007 – A historic year for the Quad

2007 was indeed a phenomenal year for the Quad as it witnessed the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) on the side-lines of that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. This was made possible after Japanese PM Shinzo Abe managed to successfully persuade the then US Vice-President Dick Cheney of the need for such a meeting. Abe also made similar proposals to India and Australia, which received positive responses.

The first Quad meeting was in fact a gathering of mid-level officials from the four countries, who explored possible ways of cooperation. The year also witnessed the participation of Japan and Australia in the annual US-India Malabar naval exercise, along with Singapore, the first in which all the Quad partners participated. These moves, as expected, invited strong reactions from China.

The disbandment of Quad 1.0

Unfortunately, what followed in the rest of 2007 were unfavourable regime changes in Japan and Australia, as PM Abe was forced to resign due to the loss of public confidence and the then Australian PM John Howard was replaced by a Mandarin-speaking and pro-China Kevin Rudd.

Less than a year since its formation, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was forced to disband itself prematurely in 2008 when Canberra made it clear that it would no longer wish to be part of the Quad, owing to pressure from Beijing, to which it was getting closer for exploring new prospects of expanding a promising economic ties, and also due to a lack of interest from the new Japanese leadership that succeeded Abe.

With a mounting economic might and promising industrial progress, China comfortably and gradually began to pursue an assertive foreign policy, which would soon be visible in areas such as the South China Sea and later reflective as Beijing’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy.

The return of Shinzo Abe and Japanese leadership at play

In 2012, the visionary Shinzo Abe made a heroic return as the Prime Minister of Japan, after winning that year’s parliamentary polls. He then vowed to invest Japan’s capabilities in the reinvigoration of the Quad by all means possible. He said, “Australia, India, Japan and the US State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons staring from the Indian Ocean Region to the Western Pacific …”

Three years later, in 2015, Japan was inducted as the third permanent partner in the US-India Malabar naval exercise. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan managed to revise its defence guidelines involving the United States, allowing maritime drills outside the vicinity of Japan’s territorial waters.

Soon after, Tokyo elevated its ties with Canberra to a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ and its ties with New Delhi to a ‘Special Strategic Global Partnership’. Around the same time, Australia, being home to one-third of the world’s known uranium reserves, overturned its uranium export ban to India by signing a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, an issue that had strained Canberra-New Delhi ties for long.

Even without a formal quadrilateral set-up in place, the Quad countries continued to enhance their mutual cooperation in the early 2010s by a series of trilateral networks initiated among themselves such as the Japan-America-India (JAI) and the Australia-India-Japan dialogues. Similarly, an Australia-Japan-US ministerial dialogue has already been in existence since 2006, falling short of including only India.

Quad 2.0 rises from the ashes

Finally, after a nine-year gap between the formal meetings of the disbanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Tokyo again took the lead in proposing a fresh meeting of the Quad to be held on the side-lines of the ASEAN and related summits in November 2017, again in Manila, the same city that hosted the very first Quad meeting almost a decade back.

The Japanese proposal was welcomed by Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, without much delay. This eventually led to the resurrection of the Quad from the ashes, almost a decade after it was disbanded. This time, in its new avatar, all the four countries had shared concerns on the geopolitical challenge posed by China and their strategic interests converged well.

In January 2018, the navy chiefs from the Quad countries participated and shared a common stage in the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual conference on geopolitics and geo-economics held in New Delhi, jointly organised by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Indian government and a think-tank named Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

2018 saw two working-level meetings of senior officials from the Quad countries in Singapore. The following year witnessed two such meetings in Bangkok and also the elevation of the Quad to the ministerial level in New York. The second Quad ministerial was hosted by Tokyo in 2020, and the same year saw all the Quad countries participating in Exercise Malabar after a gap of 13 years.

The US assumes the leadership of Quad 2.0

The United States has been a significant factor in the convening of the Quad summit recently. The Trump presidency (2017-2021) took an openly confrontational stance against China, giving an early impetus for the re-emergence of the Quad in 2017.

President Joe Biden, in fact, followed his predecessor’s footsteps and built on Trump’s legacy when it came to dealing with China, a global-level strategic rival of the United States, in arenas ranging from trade and technology to geopolitics.

With a virtual Quad ministerial and two summits being held this year under the US leadership, the balance of power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific has been recalibrated this year to the highest level of diplomatic engagement.

Australia’s trade woes with China brings it closer to the Quad

Australia and China have been engaged in a quasi-trade war since late 2019. Both countries do not share any territorial boundaries, as Southeast Asia and the China Seas lie in between these two large countries. However, China has been Australia’s biggest export market for many years.

In 2018, Australia became the first country in the world to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from its 5G trials and rollout, citing national security concerns. It was alleged that these companies had links with China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) and due to the fear of espionage. China reacted strongly to this by asking the Australian government to “abandon ideological prejudices and provide a fair competitive environment for Chinese companies”.

In 2020, Australia risked further worsening of its ties with China by demanding an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. China, on the other hand, imposed high tariffs on Australian imports, particularly wine that was taxed at over 200 per cent, with some lasting even up to five years, making its sale almost impossible in China.

Also, China has either halted or substantially reduced imports of many more items from Australia such as beef, coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber, as part of ‘anti-dumping measures’ and by alleging that the Australian government has been subsidising its wine producers for facilitating their exports against the rules of fair competition.

But, the real reason was apparently political, which China doesn’t wish to openly acknowledge and it also wanted to punish the struggling Australian economy. By March, this year, the value of Australian trade with China for almost all industries had plummeted by 40 per cent.

Since April 2020, Australia has been engaging in a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with fellow Quad partners India and Japan to diversify and mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities, without overly being dependent on a single country or a few. All these factors have, in fact, brought Australia closer to the Quad.

India’s participation as a sustainability factor in the Quad

The Quad opened up fresh new possibilities for India for cooperation with the US and its two key regional allies in the Quad. Thus, the grouping gained attraction in India’s strategic calculations for the Indo-Pacific lately, further intensified by the Chinese threat looming large across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is particularly intensified in the backdrop of the bloody Galwan clash of June 2020 that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers.

With its territorial border with China remaining tense, Indian strategic thinkers batted for an effective maritime strategy that would dissuade China from its misadventures in land, owing to its strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean. Today, the Quad remains as the lynchpin of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Some experts even pointed out that the secret to peace in India’s land border with China might actually lie in the oceans.

India has inaugurated ‘2+2’ dialogues of foreign and defence ministers with the United States, Japan and Australia in 2018, 2019 and 2021 respectively, to enhance cooperation in the realm of security, bypassing strategic constraints. If India ever leaves the Quad, the grouping simply ceases to exist with Japan and Australia continuing to remain as US allies in the region.

Historically, India has been a champion of a non-aligned foreign policy, which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’ by the dawn of this century. India still remains to be the only Quad partner not in a formal treaty alliance with the United States.

A trilateral ministerial dialogue between Australia, Japan, and the US is in existence since 2006. The leaders of Japan and Australia signed a historic Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, and a US-Japan-Australia triangle was already in place.

Thus, India was a loner in the Quad since its comeback in 2017 and has always been reluctant to the alliance system. In fact, India is an active participant of Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

A ‘Quad Plus’ in the offing

New mechanisms such as the ‘Quad-Plus’ are also taking shape recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials from the Quad countries along with their counterparts from South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand had met to discuss ways to tackle the challenges of the global health crisis, covering areas from vaccine development to mitigating the impact of the pandemic on world economy.

The Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, and France can also be potential ‘Quad-Plus’ partners in the future.

The need for a re-defined raison d’être for Quad 2.0

The world of diplomacy and multilateralism has a myriad of inter-governmental or non-governmental organisations, institutional mechanisms, legal regimes, and advocacy groups for various purposes such as global nuclear governance, trade, humanitarian assistance, environment, development assistance, health and so on. In that league, it is important to specifically determine where exactly do the Quad stand and what is its relevance in the current times?

An expanded mandate of Quad 2.0 would mean losing focus on the most important issue at hand – maritime security and defence, at the cost of entertaining other issues. The Quad deals with issues of common interest of all of its members that are systemically ‘democracies’ and this explains why China cannot be part of it.

With ‘security’ being ‘one of the many issues’ the Quad undertakes lately, the grouping still has to clear ambiguities surrounding its bottom-line raison d’être and there is still scope for redefining its purpose and central focus into a few limited themes by prioritising a sustainable and positive balance of power in the region above everything else, and I remain optimistic in this regard, particularly as the White House welcomes the prime ministers of India, Japan and Australia, this week.

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